by Paul T Lynch –
Mention Athens and people think of the Parthenon. which dominates the city from the heights of the Acropolis. However, there is much more to this city of 3 million people than ancient archaeological sites which attract tourists from all over the globe.
For a start, Athens is the easternmost capital of the European Union, the administrative capital of Greece and an important centre of education.
Getting around efficiently is one of the first things visitors need to know about. The Athens Metro opened in 1869 is the second oldest in the world, after London. It covers most areas of the city and provides a direct route from the city centre to Eleftherios Venizoulas Airport. There is also a 24 hour bus service from Syntagma Square to the airport. Areas not served by the Metro are covered by buses and trams. Athenians hold older people in high regard and anyone aged 65 or older can avail of half fare on public transport and half price admission to museums, including the Acropolis.
While the Acropolis museum is top of everyone’s list, there are others with important exhibits. The National Archaeological Museum on Patission houses the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek analogue computer dating from 87 BC used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses.
The War Museum (Museo Polymiko) on Vassilissos Sofias Avenue, with its collection of jet fighters and military hardware, also has a collection of replicas of the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles.
Greeks eat out all the time and even when the economic crisis was at its worst they still took solace in affordable food and wine in neighbourhood cafes and restaurants. It’s worthwhile to check out places where the locals go. That’s where the value is.
Klimataria on Theatro Square provides home-style cooking in an old-school rustic restaurant with live Greek music on some nights. There is a cover charge on music nights to pay the band.
Exarchia Square is interesting as an anarchist hang-out, but the cafés and on tavernas on Valtetsiou are a favourite of the locals and offer good value too. In all the tavernas you can expect to pay between €6 to €12 for main courses. Wine by the bottle is available, of course, but most Athenians drink local wine “from the barrel” at around €5 a litre.
You can’t get away from McDonalds and Burger King, as well as local firms Everest and Goodys. But happily the Greek favourite remains Souvlakia. Its a variation on the Donner Kebab costing around €2 that includes chicken or pork, salad, tsatsiki (yoghurt mixed with garlic and cucumber) and french fries, usually eaten on the run.
Greeks love to sit and discuss the state of the world over coffee. There are thousands of cafés in Athens, and places like Iroon Square near to the Monastiraki Metro station are perfect places to sit and watch the world go by.
Coffee is almost always served with a glass of water. Don’t worry if you can’t afford another cup as staff will top up your water while you finish your conversation.
There are bars aplenty in Athens, some in basements, others on the top of buildings with great views of the Acropolis. The most spectacular, and the most expensive, of these is the Galaxy Bar in the Athens Hilton. The Herodian Hotel Rooftop Bar, Rovertou Galli 4 is another romantic spot to view the night sky and illuminated Athens landmarks.
The expats favourites are the Irish bars, like the James Joyce, Astiggos 12. Where else could you watch the All-Ireland over a pint of Guinness? Of course you can go out of town to Piraeus to O’Connell’s, Akti Miaouli 79, to watch the Rugby Six Nations.
To experience the buzz of Athens city life, there’s no better street than Athinas, running from Omonia Square to the Agora at Monastiraki. The central meat, fish and vegetable markets line the street, along with cafés and hardware and clothes shops.
Conveniently you can buy the meat and veg for the dinner, the knives, forks and plates to eat it off and a cooker to prepare it on and sit over a cup of coffee before gathering your strength to do the cooking.
Paul T. Lynch lives part of the year in central Athens while writing and doing research for his novels. His latest thriller Lethal Cargo is partly set in Athens.